Monday, July 6, 2009

Living Soil

Most gardeners see their job as one of taking care of the plants. You water them when they get dry, fertilize them as needed and deal with pests and diseases. But how does this process work in nature? Nature takes care of the plants. So why doesn't it take care of the plants in our garden? Nobody fertilizes that beautiful meadow you hike through on your weekend hike, so how does it look so lush? Nobody sprays it for fungal diseases and pests, so why do the plants there only have minimal damage despite a lack of intervention?

Despite what we like to tell ourselves, a garden is a very un-natural place. Nature is subverted at every turn. A fully natural garden would look like a meadow and the Home Owners' Association would show up and cite us for not removing weeds.

So what is it about those natural environments that nurtures the plants and keeps them healthy so effortlessly, and more importantly, how can we mimic that environment without invoking the ire of the neighbors? The key is living soil. Soil is not just some foundation beneath our feet, a stable medium for plants and a source of important minerals. It is very much alive, or at least it should be. Soil is it own ecosystem, it just exists on a microscopic scale. It is filled with bacteria, fungus, insects, worms and much more, all living in harmony. Each player has a niche to fill, a job to do, and is an important part of the whole. Nearly half of each plant exists immersed in this ecosystem and has evolved specifically to live in that environment.

Healthy soil nourishes the plant and increases its health. Healthy plants don't need outside intervention to prevent pests and diseases. They have an immune system, just like you and I. Plants grown in healthy soil are healthy and have the ability to fight disease. They also grow faster, get bigger and are able to produce more sugars.

So how do you make healthy, alive soil? As always, we take our cues from nature. What soil amendments does nature add? Dead plants and insects are returned to the soil to decompose and occasional doses of manure are added. That's pretty much it. It needs regular doses of organic material.

But dead plants laying all over the ground is unsightly. How do we fix that? Well, that’s where bioneering comes in. Compost is bioneered soil. By composting our organic material, we create the ideal soil ammendment, the perfect food for our living soil. Also, regular applications of organic mulch, such as wood chips and straw help a great deal. Those ammendments feed the soil, which in turn cares for our plants.

So remember to feed your soil!

Oh, and synthetic fertilizers are like junk food for your soil. It doesn’t create lasting health, especially if you don’t also give it the healthy food.


  1. This is a really great post!

  2. Hi Edmund,

    Just discovered your fabulous blog. I was researching whether the soil in containers can ever function as it would in nature... can microorganisms and worms and all those good things really survive in containers to complete the food soil web cycle? Even if the container is not on soil (but on a balcony, for example)? What do you think?

  3. Heavy Petal,
    You can absolutely have living soil in a container. I am currently doing just that. Check out my post on The Bioneered Container Garden. Don't use potting soil, though. It is sterile and has a lot of stuff in it that won't decompose. Use a soil mixture that is really heavy on the organic material. Then, as it grows, make sure you feed your soil, either by burying compost scraps in the soil, or by applying a good mulch. Good luck, and let me know how it goes! - Ed

  4. Thanks for the post, we will post your article "Can plants grow without soil". I will post for our customers to see your articles on your blog Can plants grow without soil

  5. My mantra was, is and likely will continue to be: I feed the soil. The soil feeds the plants. The plants feed me.

    I've been an organic gardener for a good 20 years. It's the right way to go. "Organic" basically boils down to letting nature do what it does best and we do poorly. I rarely dig my soil deeper than planting depth for an allium or asparagus root ... but the earthworms / night crawlers guarantee me drainage and aeration for a good 6 feet down. I like that.

  6. Bill - Agreed. I also tend to prefer the no-dig rule. Digging kills the mycorrhizal fungus, which is one of the most important aspects to living soil.

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